Clay Shirk ranted on his blog, recently, on a topic that resonated with the teacher and educator in me. He titled this blog entry “A Rant About Women”, which sounds a bit misogynist. (And I’m trying to think of how to start this entry to make it clear to you, Dear Reader, that it’s exactly the opposite.) But it’s not. It’s quite the opposite.

In his rant (a link to which I’ll give below), Clay tells a couple stories that illuminate gender differences in the way people represent themselves or take risks. These stories express his frustration with this. His frustration that the work of women he’s known and worked with gets overshadowed by the work of men. He worries about this and says the following:

This worry isn’t about psychology; I’m not concerned that women don’t engage in enough building of self-confidence or self-esteem. I’m worried about something much simpler: not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.

In his essay, he explores this difference and its social implications, especially in what he calls two-sided markets: situations where you are making a choice about what to do next, but your options are also making a decision about what you will be allowed to do next.

Some of the most important opportunities we have are in two-sided markets: education and employment, contracts and loans, grants and prizes. And the institutions that offer these opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.

That in turn correlates with many of the skills the candidate will need to actually do the work — to recruit colleagues and raise money, to motivate participants and convince skeptics, to persevere in the face of both obstacles and ridicule. Institutions assessing the fitness of candidates, in other words, often select self-promoters because self-promotion is tied to other characteristics needed for success.

I see this type of behavior all the time in the mathematics classes I teach. Women are less likely, on average, to be vocal whereas the people who act like know-it-alls tend to be guys. I’d just never thought how this pattern of behavior generalizes and extends.

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We’re in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage men to be better listeners and more sensitive partners, to take more account of others’ feelings and to let out our own feelings more. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching women strategies for self-defense, including direct physical aggression. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.

Is this a call for educators to try to elicit different behavior from women in their classes? I wonder if women who study at Bryn Mawr or other colleges for women share the tendency that Clay talks about. Is this why there are very very few women in the field of computer science, engineering, and the sciences? Like, Clay, I don’t know where to go from here. But, like Clay, I think this is something educators need to be cognizant of.

Here is a link to Shirky’s “A Rank About Women.” Clay Shirky studies the social and economic effect of Internet technologies.

Addition:: Here’s an interesting commentary on Clay’s rant that explores this question in a slightly different direction.